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The Early 20th Century


By Alex Brown





Between 1890 and 1914 throughout Europe and particularly Germany, a series of design experiments took place in Architecture, Product and a whole range of media which sought to produce examples of what the new Modern Style might look like. To a large extent the buildings and products produced still had a 19th century look but the emphasis on structure, lack of decoration and clarity of form soon began to show that a new design style was in the making.


Some of these ideas which were new to their time can be summarized as follows:


1.       Functionalism (`form follows function`): the overall design of a building is more concern with its functioning purposes.


2.       The Machine Age:  the idea of a DYNAMIC new and `modern' age image.


3.       The belief: TRUTH TO THE MATERIAL.


4.    Design driven by rational analysis of problems and by mass production techniques.



2.0    THE FIRST WORLD WAR  (1914-1918)


The development of the Modern Movement in Art and Design was temporarily halted by the First World War between the Central European Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and allies) and the Triple Entente (Britain, France, Russia and their allies including the USA). The war ended with the defeat of Germany and revolution in Russia. In all countries during the conflict almost all production was geared to the needs of the war.


What became clear was the enormous productive power of modern industry. Mass production and standardization soon become the key concept in the thinking of the post war designers.




By the 1920s in Europe a whole new generation of architects and designers had arisen. They accepted the philosophy and practice of the Modern Movement and the dynamic reality of modern industrial society. In different parts of Europe this new design approach was interpreted in different ways producing several different versions of what is to be known as the Modern style:



         Movement                     Country                             Designers


         Bauhaus                        Germany                            Gropius, Mies van Der Rohe

         De Stijl                           Holland                                Rietveld, Van Doesburg

         Constructivism               USSR (Poland, Czech.)      Malevitch, Tatlin

         Purism                           France                                 Le Corbusier, Ozenfant

         Futurism                        Italy                                      Sant Elia, Manetti



3.1    The Bauhaus (from 1919)


Founded in Germany, the Bauhaus was certainly the most influential design school of the time (or since). Its basic philosophy defined by the architect Gropius and the artists Itten and Kandinsky can be outlined as follows:


1.      An integration of all the arts (to produce a totally designed and unified environment) with the present technology.

2.      Design based on rational analysis of functional problems.

3.      Design for mass production methods/standardization.

4.      The teaching of  'creativity' in design.


The end result of the Bauhaus experiment in teaching was to produce a generation of designers: architects, graphic artists, furniture and product designers whose consistent and rational style would establish Modern Design as the only appropriate style for the Modern Age.


3.2    De Stijl (the `Style')


This section of the Modern Movement was established in Holland and was based essentially on the ideas of three men: The painter, Piet Mondrian; architects, Theo van Doesberg and Gerrit Rietvelt. The ideas of this group centred on the search for and recombination of the most fundamental elements of design, namely the basic planes and cubic forms. The theories and aims of the group can be stated as the search for a universal language of art which could unite all designed objects.


1.      Essentially artistic in character and concerned with pure colours and forms in painting architecture and furniture design with geometry as the basis for all design.


2.      Limits the forms it used to separated surfaces and planes which define 3-dimensional space. Yellow blue and red colours (black was used to act as a 'frame' for coloured objects or planes).


3.     The key concept is one of ELEMENTARY, economic, functional and unmonumental forms placed in a dynamic and asymmetrical relationship to one another.


3.3    Constructivism (1918 - 1932)


The Russian Revolution took place in 1917. The establishment of the Soviet Union gave artists and architects what they thought was the opportunity to build a completely new society which demanded a new and revolutionary art style where products were determined by social goals and needs. The characteristics of Constructivism can be summarized as follows:


1.      Totally anti-historical, anti-art, and functionalist in character. 


2.      Dynamic expression of individual volumes, spaces, structure & transparency.


3.      Red and black colours predominate and diagonal elements are used to express dynamism.


4.      Large scale engineering and construction emphasis in design. Supporting structures are  exposed to emphasize the volumes which they support.


By 1932 the Soviet government repressed any further experimentation in art and design on the grounds that: the products could not be built, did not work and finally that the ordinary people did not understand them. A simplified Classicism was re-established as the official state design style and re-named 'Social Realism'.


3.4    Purism (1917-1931)


This movement was based on the ideas of the Swiss-French architect painter Le Corbusier and the painter Ozenfant. Purism sought to represent a purified and recognizable image of real objects. The style essentially reduced object to their geometric basics carefully arranged within the rectangle of the painting. Purism was not very influential in terms of art or painting. However, in terms of architecture, interior space, furniture and town planning, Le Corbusier may be said to be the most influential architect of the century.


By analysing the fundamental character of architecture, he saw very clearly that it could be reduced and PURIFIED down to a STRUCTURAL GRID and a FREE PLAN within which curved walls, partitions, stairs, ramps, double-height living areas, etc could be freely placed. This concept became the basis for much of the modern architecture of this century.


Equally, he applied the same thinking to furniture to produce his famous chairs in which the soft seating area was supported on an exposed metal frame - like a structural grid.


3.5    Futurism (1909-1917)


As written by the poet, Filippo Marinetti, Futurism was one of the most radical art movements of the early 20th century. Violently ant-historical, it proposed a complete and total reconstruction of the traditional society around the new industrial realities of POWER, SPEED, THE MACHINE AND THE CITY. By every conceivable means: leaflets, poems, paintings, sculpture and architecture, dance and theatre, the Futurists attacked and abused the art and culture of the 19th century which still prevailed and endlessly praised the dynamism of the new  MACHINE AGE.


The most important artist/ sculptor of the movement was Umberto Boccioni, who produced the essential Futurist images: showing the shapes of things being deformed and blurred with movement - like photographs of moving people and objects.


Futurist architecture was designed by Antonio Sant Elia who projected dynamic Futurist cities where the buildings are arranged around major highways and intersections.




Most of the artist in this period were experimenting in search of a style that could best reflect their thoughts, moods and emotions to their surrounding.


4.1    Expressionism


COLOUR and the BRUSHSTROKE in the painting took on a life of its own in addition to the subject matter depicted. The colours applied onto the object somehow is to be seen as part of the stress-filled conditions of the modern life depicted. Probably first applied onto the French Fauves (wild beast), the term Expressionism is used on works in which the artist expressed his feelings within the painting through his emotional application of colour. The characteristics of Expressionism are:


1.      Pure vibrant colours independent of the subject matter

2.     Colour is sometimes detatched (or shifted slightly) from the shape of the object and  can be read as an                    independent form within the picture frame.

3.    The shape of the object is secondary to the EFFECT of the colour harmonies and  combinations.


Artists: Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee, Munch, Rouault, etc.


Sculptors: Lehmbruck, Barlach, etc.

Film: THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI directed by Robert Wiene (1881-1938)

Writers: Alois Riegel, Wilhelm Worringer, Henri Bergson, etc.


4.2  Cubism


Inspired partly by Einstein’s theory on space-time qualities in realty and by Cezanne's painting technique in breaking down Nature into simple forms, the Cubist artist 'deconstructed' the subject into basic forms such as spheres, cones and cubes, and arranged them in a new order within the picture frame. It is this breakdown that artists thought the reality should be perceived.


4.2.1    Analytic Cubism


Fragments the object into its constituent geometric parts which are used to create a semi-abstract image.


         Multiple viewpoints of the subject.

         (Transparent planes allowing the see-through from one level to another.)


4.2.2    Synthetic Cubism

         Use of collage and layering technique to represent parts of a subject.

        (“Objects and space alike are constructed or synthesized from the materials used to make the work.”)


Artists: Picasso, Braque, Leger, Gris, Davis, Douglas, etc.

Sculptors: Lipchitz, etc.


4.3    Dada


The word ‘dada’ means a hobby-horse in French. The movement came about in Germany where artists involved made use of their works to depict the power and the powerless, the rich and the poor, and the senseless brutality of the War. There was also the attack on art: its universal principles on truth and beauty. It was more a mindset than a distinctive style.


The meaning of any work is perceived not only by the intent of its creator, but also by the inherent qualities of the medium, and by the mind and emotion of the audience. Artists replaced the traditional art with what they called as ‘sheer nonsense’.


1.      The use of ‘ready-made’.

2.      The technique, AUTOMATISM, (in collage)is parallel to (psychoanalysts) Carl Jung’s and Sigmund Freud’s concept             of the ‘unconscious mind’.


Artists : Arp, Höch, Schwitters, Ray, De Chirico, etc.

Sculptors : Duchamp, Arp, etc.

Writers : Fredrich Nietzsche, etc.


4.4  Surrealism


The idea of the sub-conscious mind as being a catharsis in the Dada movement was later taken up by the Surrealist group of artist. Dreams, the realm of fantasy and of the subconscious mind, where realistic objects are placed in unfamiliar, impossible situations became the basis Surrealistic thoughts worked upon.


1.      Concern with the subject matter and its possible relationships.

2.      Making the familiar unfamiliar by changing the context in which it is usually seen.

3.      The artistic equivalent of the dream-state- deeply symbolic.


Artists      : De Chirico, Ernst, Rousseau, Miro, Dali, etc.

Writers    :  Freud, Richard von Kraft-Ebing, André Breton, etc.

Films        : UN CHIEN ANDALOU, (1929) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali.


5.0    THE SECOND WORLD WAR (1939-1945)


In the West the period between the two World Wars (1918-1939) was one of economic and political crises. Unemployment, inflation and poverty rose dramatically in Europe and the United States and in Europe, this led to the rise of dictatorships in Germany (Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party) and in Italy (Mussolini and the Fascist party).


Political crises increased in Europe up to 1939 when the Second World War broke out with the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) on one side and the Allied powers (Britain, France, the USA, USSR, China and the commonwealth) on the other. The war ended in 1945 with the defeat of Germany and Japan.


Under the threat of war or persecution many European artists emigrated to America. (This influx of artists merged with American culture to create a new Western tradition in art.) By the end of the war in 1945 Europe and much of Asia were devastated. The United States, however, came out of the war stronger than ever and certainly wielding more influence and power than any other country.




The ideas and theories of the Modern Movement in both ART AND DESIGN were put into practice again in the Post War world.


In Europe, the Bauhaus Functionalist approach was still dominant - severe, simple and sometimes elegant. This European approach was very abstract and intellectual in design terms. However, the after-effects of the war in Europe were a general shortage of materials and money for design. The result was that Europe tended to produce simple austere designs in all fields until the 1960s.


In the United States, the economy was booming and this brought with it the possibility of a non-functionalist approach to the design of products, (e.g. cars with their chromium trim and grills and sleek rear fins). While the US design combined European and American ideas of style, market competition in the powerful US economy led American designers to emphasis STYLING as against pure function as a major sales tool. That is, if things looked good, they sold well. 


This was contrary to European Functionalist (e.g. Bauhaus) theories where the shape of the object was determined purely by its function. American attitudes were different and much more open to the idea of 'pleasure styling'.




The Modern Movement design style covered every aspect of life, product design, graphics, architecture, furniture design, and so on, and was used in many different countries. It became known as the INTERNATIONAL STYLE.




1.      The apparently Functionalist design style of the ex-Bauhaus Germans who had migrated to  the USA: Gropius and Mies van Der Rohe.


2.      Their design approach - the almost featureless steel framed glass tower - matched exactly the commercial and technological needs of the American Corporation.  (Note that the main building material in the USA was steel and in the 1920s Mies had proposed a steel framed glass office building in Germany).


3.      The ideas theories and examples of the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier.

        In Europe, the main building material was concrete and its possibilities had been explored by the architect, Le Corbusier. His ideas on architecture and town planning were very influential in Europe where whole new towns were being created in the aftermath of the war. Steeped in Classical, Southern European culture, Le Crosiers designs can be considered to be the 'Expressionist' direction of the Modern Movement: dynamic concrete shapes.


The work of the Second Generation of architects who began to practise in the late 1950s/early 1960s can be understood as a dramatisation of these two very different approaches to design.




The art movements which arose after the Second World War can be seen as general developments of  previous movements - an evolution from one stage to another.


By dropping the subject matter, Expressionism becomes ASTRACT EXPRESSIONISM.





             E.M. Foster:   A Passage to India

             D.H. Lawrence:  Lady Chatterly’s Lover

             F. Scott Fitzgerald  :  The Great Gatsby

            John Steinbeck:  The Grapes of Wrath

            Virgina Woolf:  To the Lighthouse



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